Sun | Oct 21, 2018

Eric Khant | Together, we can end Jamaica’s HIV epidemic

Published:Sunday | May 27, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Eric Khant, US charge d'affaires.

Nine thousand, seven hundred and ninety-six. This is the number of Jamaicans currently receiving life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS thanks to the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, better known as PEPFAR, in partnership with the Jamaican Ministry of Health, the Global Fund, UNAIDS, and local organisations.

Those 9,796 people are not the only beneficiaries. The effect is multiplied through families who can still hug their loved ones, communities that can still watch the neighbourhood children grow up together, and workplaces where teams remain intact, working toward a collective vision. PEPFAR assistance truly has a positive impact across Jamaican society.

This year is a significant one for PEPFAR, as we celebrate 15 years of the trailblazing plan to respond to the global HIV crisis. On May 27, 2003, President George W. Bush signed PEPFAR into law following US Congressional authorisation. Over the past 15 years, PEPFAR has helped not only save and improve millions of lives, but also transform the global HIV/AIDS response.

For the first time in modern history, we have the opportunity to control a pandemic without a vaccine or a cure while laying the groundwork for eventually eliminating or eradicating HIV.

 

PROGRESS

 

Collectively, we are accelerating progress toward controlling, and ultimately ending, the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a public health threat.

The achievements are impressive. When PEPFAR began, only 50,000 people in Africa were on life-saving HIV treatment. As of September 30, 2017, PEPFAR supports more than 13.3 million people on HIV treatment globally. Thanks to the generosity of the American people, 13 high-HIV burden countries are now poised to achieve epidemic control by 2020.

Millions of babies have been given a chance at a healthy life. Whole societies have been allowed to flourish. With PEPFAR as a leading element of global support, AIDS-related deaths have declined by nearly 50 per cent globally since their peak in 2005.

Here in Jamaica, PEPFAR has invested millions of US dollars since 2010 to help Jamaica in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We should celebrate that more than 80 per cent of the 30,000 people living with HIV in Jamaica now know their status. US Embassy Kingston applauds the Government of Jamaica's leadership in adopting the 'Treat All' policy, the global standard for HIV/AIDS response, which says that all individuals who test positive should rapidly initiate treatment.

At the same time, there is more work to be done. Fewer than 40 per cent of people living with HIV in Jamaica are accessing life-saving antiretroviral treatment. Only around 20 per cent of those living with HIV have achieved viral suppression, meaning their health is preserved, and there is almost no likelihood that they can pass the virus to someone else.

 

BOOSTING EFFORTS

 

To better position ourselves to help address these challenges, in the last year, PEPFAR has moved its regional base from Barbados to Jamaica, where we are intensifying our efforts.

As the adage goes, knowledge is power. In the case of HIV/AIDS, the knowledge of one's HIV status empowers that individual to initiate treatment that enables a long, healthy life. Even if they are not sick, those who test positive should immediately start a treatment regimen in order to maintain their health. If people consistently take their prescribed medications, they can achieve viral suppression. This is the path to effective epidemic control - and a Jamaica free of HIV/AIDS.

Diseases do not discriminate - anyone can be afflicted. Everyone should feel comfortable seeking medical care, without fear of stigma or discrimination. If someone needed chemotherapy to fight cancer or insulin to counter diabetes, we would want that individual to get the medical help he or she needed, free of judgement or criticism. The same should hold true for HIV/AIDS.

Together, we can end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Jamaica. Let's multiply the 9,796 figure and ensure that all 30,000 people living with HIV on the island have access to life-saving treatment, paving the way for an HIV-free Jamaica. On behalf of the American people, I look forward to our continued partnership.

- Eric Khant is charge d'affaires at the US Embassy, Kingston. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.